Tampa Bay Rebellion

Why we need a non-violent direct action movement against climate change, right here, right now

If the constant hurricanes and wildfires didn’t get your attention, the scientific bombshell should have.  In October the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its latest report, Global Warming of 1.5 °C.  The panel is a UN body of thousands of scientists that analyses all the latest scientific papers to draw conclusions.  They found that in order to have a decent chance of avoiding the runaway climate change found above 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming, we must aim to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 45% by 2030 (based on 2010 levels), and then reach zero emissions by the middle of this century.

These numbers, and the scale of challenge they represent, horrified many people.  But I haven’t seen much reporting on what it means for specific countries. The United States emits higher levels of greenhouse gases per person than most nations, so the cuts must necessarily be even deeper.  I invite more statistical minds to improve on them, but according to my rough calculations based on population size and global emissions share (neither of which has changed drastically since 2010), in order to do its fair part the United States must cut emissions by around 85% in the next eleven years.

The IPCC’s recommendations are buttressed by calls for a global 20% cut in material consumption levels, dropping coal use by around two thirds, oil in half, and natural gas by a third, all by 2030.  Again, all of these targets will need to be higher in wealthy, high consumption countries.  Look at the figures and ask yourself if the IPCC, scientists with an inclination to say nothing they can’t prove, are appealing for anything other than the bare minimum of what they think might be necessary.  We need to aim higher than these goals to have a chance of at least meeting them.

Almost immediately following the release of the report came news of Extinction Rebellion, and their inspiring campaign of mass economic disruption.  On December 2nd a launch event for Extinction Rebellion US took place in Washington DC. The movement has since spread to over 35 countries and 200 local chapters.  We can all now have the pleasure of joining in as the US day of action approaches on January 26th, followed by the international day of action on April 19th.

There are numerous reasons why people in the United States may not have heard about any of these protests, the most obvious being the drama of the midterm elections.  We should care about who is put in office. The Trump administration’s assault on the environment is representative of an increasingly desperate fossil fuel industry. But when it comes to climate change, we haven’t the luxury of obsessing over it, as the click-dependent media that helped to put him in power would have us do.  If our movements are strong, worthy politicians will seek to follow them. Largely independent of Trump, plans are in the dirty pipeline to expand two major sources of greenhouse gases in Tampa Bay, and they have so far been met with almost no opposition. Nothing makes the people destroying our environment happier than silence.

Big Bend Power Station in Apollo Beach is the only coal burning plant located around Tampa Bay, and is one of the largest in the state.  Operator Tampa Electric (TECO) sent out a customer letter in May of this year detailing their hopes for modernisation.  The plan is to retire one antiquated coal-and-gas-fired unit and convert another to a modern natural gas unit (two primarily coal-fired units would remain in use).  It sounds like progress. This conversion however is gambling on the long-term continuation of the American fracking boom and all of its associated problems (fracked wells now provide two thirds of U.S. natural gas production).  The Trump government has spent the last two years trying to remove rules that oblige oil and gas companies to at least try to plug methane leaks, rather than letting it vent into the atmosphere, and those attempts can be expected to continue.  Because methane is some 86 times more potent a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide, fracked gas is arguably just as bad for the climate as coal, if not worse. This proposal is not progress at all.

If we believe fracking is unsuitable for Florida, it’s hard to see why we should financially support it happening in other places.  Tampa Electric says the project, if implemented, will cost $1 billion, take ten years to finish, and should be expected to last thirty-five or forty.  These numbers should set alarm bells off in the heads of all climate activists considering the small window of time we have left.  Are we going to let them expend all this money and effort to make a one-time conversion that will make no discernable difference to electricity emissions?

The company has made much of its investments in solar, including one project at Big Bend itself, which they brag is the biggest in Tampa Bay.  The array produces 23 megawatts (MW) of electricity, or approximately 1.35% of the amount currently produced at the fossil power station.  Other projects are expected to bring their total solar to 600 MW, or 7% of their total generation, by 2023.  But sunny Florida ranks a sad 8th in total solar generation nationwide, with California producing over ten times our capacity and powering 17% of their grid.  TECO has the means to expand these solar plans rapidly rather than give a money stream to the fracking industry, and that’s where the majority of the $1 billion budget should be going (aside from the decommissioning costs of the coal units).

This investment is even worse when you consider that natural gas, whether fracked or not, is now in direct competition with renewables to replace coal, and TECO’s current funding of solar amounts to a mere $50 million.  In the decade leading up to 2016 their profits almost doubled to $250 million.  CEO Nancy Tower earned $1.5 million last year, while CEO of parent company Emera, Robert Bennett, earned almost $2.2 million.  All that matters in judging a proposal in terms of climate change is whether it lines up with the goals of the IPCC report, not whatever positive framing a company might use to present it to the public.  Construction is expected to begin in June 2019.

When it comes to the various failures of the big green NGOs in this country, nothing stands out like their disregarding of the climate change impacts of aviation.  Going on a flight is the most damaging climate choice that an individual can make. A fully-booked return trip from London to New York produces around 1.2 tonnes of CO2 per person (with the average American carbon footprint being about 19 tonnes a year).  Planes use vast amounts of kerosene over vast distances, with a global warming effect that is, according to the IPCC, around 2.7 times higher than the carbon emissions they produce (due partially to the height at which planes operate).  While aviation currently accounts for about 5% of global warming, it is also the fastest growing sector, at a time when other industries are at the very least under pressure to shrink their emissions.  The 20,000 planes in the air today are projected, under a business as usual scenario, to number 50,000 by as soon as 2040.  The EU predicts that if this exception continues to be made for aviation its share of global CO2 output could be 22% by 2050.

The ballooning of the sector hugely outstrips all slight improvements in fuel efficiency, as most of the significant gains on this front have already been made.  Alternative fuels (like hydrogen) and tech designs (like solar planes) remain little more than public relations stunts.  Even if such routes were feasible, planes are expensive, so airlines keep them in service for decades, and are not likely to retire them early and build new ones without massive political pressure.  Until a pathetic voluntary offset deal was struck in 2016, aviation was routinely ignored by national and international climate treaties because governments didn’t want to admit a simple fact: the only way to get a large cut in airline emissions is a large cut in the number of flights.  Despite American driving habits, flying already makes up 12% of all transport emissions nationally (it’s not clear how or if this number includes international flights).

With this information in mind, it’s possible that what is slated to happen at Tampa International Airport is even worse than what is happening at Big Bend.  The publicly owned airport has already spent a billion dollars on part one of a three phase plan, and intends to spend another billion.  It involves turning the airport into what some have called a “mini-city,” complete with offices, retailers, hotels, restaurants, and a giant car rental centre, with phase two expected to begin in late 2019.  More alarmingly, the final phase of the project is designed to expand capacity from the 19.6 million passengers of 2017, to accommodate 34 million in the coming years as demand grows.  This is classic expansionist spin: by building the extra gates and capacity, the airport is helping to stoke the increase in demand.

“It’s critical that we keep this airport up to date and support this kind of growth for the next twenty to thirty years,” Hillsborough County Aviation Authority chair Robert Watkins said in February.  I’m sure it will seem like a wonderful investment when Tampa is hit by a seventeen foot storm surge that puts the runways underwater.  In a world where oil consumption must be cut in half within twelve years, is it logical or fair to allow an airport to almost double its emissions?  Or should all that effort perhaps go into alternative modes of travel? If you’re currently objecting that our economy is highly dependent on flights from tourists, seasonal visitors and retirees, you are correct, and should be very angry at businesspeople and politicians who for decades have argued that this is a sustainable model.  Luckily, CEO Joe Lopano (projected compensation for this year: $625,000, one of the highest paid airport CEOs in the country) has another plan, which is to have Tampa International achieve carbon neutral status.  There’s just one problem: it only includes emissions from planes when they’re within the perimeter of the friggin’ airport.

Given the almost complete lack of dissenting voices against these projects from either the press or local environmentalists (with the quiet exception of Sierra Club), direct action that causes disruption and draws attention is the only tactic that is going to drag them into public consciousness in anything like the speed that is necessary.  These actions would be demanding and potentially dangerous. Last summer five workers were burned to death at Big Bend whilst trying to clean underneath an active boiler.  Airports are terrifying places to contemplate breaking the law.  But climate activists managed interventions against runway expansions at Heathrow Airport and other UK airports in the years immediately following the attacks on the London Underground, and the introduction of the “liquids as bombs” terrorism approach that annoys fliers to this day.  The U.S., with its paranoid and highly armed security apparatus, offers more challenges. But like all the others, we must overcome or subvert them.

The Extinction Rebellion protests are aimed primarily at political targets in capital cities.  Aside from the issue of geographic barriers that we face from way down here, actions against actual emission points are still important, and can supplement and build momentum for the general idea of the non-violent uprising (and we can of course find worthy structural targets closer to home should we so choose).  If we don’t oppose these plans that go full throttle in the wrong direction, and oppose them hard, they will make a mockery of any commitments our region makes — in the present or future — to 100% renewable energy. Climate change work that focuses on what we build at the expense of what we close down is missing the fundamental point.

Individuals can only choose honestly for themselves, but we must be brutally honest about what is a reason for holding back and what is an excuse.  As a childless, partially youthful white male, I have certain advantages when it comes to confrontational protest. But I’m also a green card holder in an age where even green card holders and American citizens are not safe from deportation, and it seems as if almost anything can happen.  I’m still more afraid of climate change than I am of the government. The chances are good that you also have room to maneuver in assisting with such actions.  As ever, we need supporters, such as legal experts, child care givers, drivers, writers, medics and mental health experts, cooks, artists and funders.  That means we need you.

This is a call to all the good people who support local businesses, care about plastic and straw pollution, voted to ban offshore oil drilling and expand transit spending in Hillsborough, decry the red tide and go on climate change demonstrations.  Now or never is the time for commitment and sacrifice. In my article on the Rise Up Climate march in St. Petersburg in September, I raised questions about whether it was worth our finite efforts to force a transition in a part of the world that is incredibly vulnerable to already locked-in climate change.  I still think that is an important discussion. But whether we remain here or not, there is now no doubt that we have a responsibility to suffocate major sources of greenhouse gas emissions on our doorsteps. If we fail to see any developments on this front, if the community appears to have insufficient will to survive, it will only become worthy of abandonment in another sense.  Tampa Bay is heading for extinction. The architects of that extinction are banking on our indifference. Are you ready to rebel?

The Extinction Rebellion Tampa Bay planning page can be found here.  Planning meetings are taking place weekly.  James Lamont can be contacted at jamesalexanderlamont[at]gmail.com. His website is Radical Beat.